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ACLU: Facebook Has to Do Much More to Stop Housing & Job Discrimination on Platform

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As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to lawmakers Tuesday about the massive privacy scandal enveloping the platform, Facebook has also been slapped with a new lawsuit by fair housing groups who accuse Facebook of allowing employers and housing brokers to discriminate in their targeted advertising. The lawsuit says some of Facebook’s advertisers do not show job and housing listings to African Americans and women. For more, we speak with Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for surveillance and privacy at the American Civil Liberties Union.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to discuss Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s first testimony before Congress. It started yesterday, it continues today. Yesterday, it was in the Senate. I want to turn to Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington questioning Zuckerberg.

SEN. MARIA CANTWELL: Do you believe the European regulations should be applied here in the U.S.?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Senator, I think everyone in the world deserves good privacy protection. And regardless of whether we implement the exact same regulation—I would guess that it would be somewhat different, because we have somewhat different sensibilities in the U.S. as the other countries—we’re committed to rolling out the controls and the affirmative consent.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Mark Zuckerberg. We’re joined by Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for surveillance and privacy at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Can you respond to what he said, and what’s been covered and not covered in these hearings so far, Neema?

NEEMA SINGH GULIANI: Yes. I mean, I think that a very important issue, going forward, is going to be: How are the new regulations in Europe going to affect people here in the U.S.? So, at the end of May, Europe’s comprehensive privacy regulations, the GDPR, are going to go into effect. And they deal with some very important issues, many of which have come up, you know, as part of this Cambridge Analytica debate. They provide protections around consent, making sure that companies get affirmative consent before they use individuals’ data. They talk about things like transparency, to make it easier for users to get information about how their data is being used. And importantly, they have, you know, various structures around enforcement, to make sure that the regulations aren’t just words on a piece of paper, but that there are actually people who can take action against companies when they don’t comply with these regulations.

And an issue that I think has arisen is: Now that Facebook has to comply with these regulations, now that they will be providing many of these protections for individuals in the European Union, will they provide the same protections for individuals here in the U.S.? And they should be pressured to do so. But really, notwithstanding that, I think it’s finally time for us to be having this debate in the U.S. You know, we’re behind the eight ball when it comes to privacy regulation. We see conversations around the world about what laws and what regulatory framework do we need to make sure that users’ data is protected, and we don’t have the same level of regulation here in the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey questioning Mark Zuckerberg.

SEN. CORY BOOKER: There are a lot of communities of color worried that that data could be used to surveil groups like Black Lives Matter, like folks who are trying to organize against substantive issues of discrimination in this country. Is this something that you’re committed to addressing?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Yes, Senator, I think that that’s very important. We’re committed to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Neema Singh, can you respond, Neema Singh Guliani?

NEEMA SINGH GULIANI: Yeah, I mean, this was really a great exchange with Senator Booker. You know, what he was asking were two simple questions. One is: What are the concerns around all of this data Facebook collecting being used for surveillance? And obviously this is an issue that goes beyond Facebook. It’s an issue that goes beyond the consumer context, but also questions around, you know: Are our laws governing when the government can access certain technologies—are they strong enough? And the reality is, they’re not. You know, many of our laws, governing when law enforcement can get things like emails or text messages, were written even before people had cellphones and were using emails. And what we’re seeing the concern is, is that there’s this massive amount of data collection by Facebook, and there’s not really the controls to make sure that it doesn’t get into the hands of the government improperly. There’s not the controls to ensure that surveillance companies, who want to use Facebook data and sell it to law enforcement, are not able to do so. And that’s a real concern, because it could really affect, you know, protesters, other individuals, who are using Facebook and using the platform to communicate, and have done nothing wrong.

But the other issue that I think that was raised as part of this exchange is also this question of discrimination on Facebook, when we have laws in this country that make it illegal to discriminate in terms of housing and employment and credit. And recently, there have been concerns that advertisers, who are advertising in these areas, can actually use the platform to discriminate. And so, if you talk to users, the idea that they might not see a housing ad just because they’re identified as being a particular ethnicity, or they might not see an employment opportunity simply because the platform identifies them as being a woman, that’s something that’s very concerning. It’s something that has a very real impact on, you know, the job they have or where they live.

And this is an issue that civil liberties groups have raised with the company, saying, “Look, based on the research that has been done, advertisers can actually post ads that exclude particular ethnic groups or particular genders or individuals who are associated with having a disability or other types of protected characteristics.” And when these concerns have been raised with Facebook, they’ve said, “Look, we’re going to take action. We’re going to prohibit these types of advertisements. We recognize that this is a serious concern and a serious problem.” But even after these issues were raised, even after Facebook said that they took action, a study by ProPublica found that you still, in fact, could—you have these types of advertisements and wrongly exclude individuals who might belong to a particular ethnic group, who might be considered to have veteran status. And that’s a real problem.

And so, you know, when Mark Zuckerberg says, you know, “I’m not happy with where we are when it comes to ad discrimination,” he shouldn’t be happy. The company needs to do much, much more to make sure that the platform doesn’t essentially become, you know, a tool that individuals can use to discriminate against individuals, and discriminate against individuals in a way that really runs awry of many of our existing civil rights laws.

AMY GOODMAN: Neema, I wanted to get your response to Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, the chief operating officer. She was interviewed by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie last week.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Could you come up with a tool that said, “I do not want Facebook to use my personal profile data to target me for advertising”? Could you have an opt-out button: “Please don’t use my profile data for advertising”?

SHERYL SANDBERG: We have different forms of opt-out. We don’t have an opt-out at the highest level. That would be a paid product.

AMY GOODMAN: “That would be a paid product.” Neema Singh Guliani, can you respond to this?

NEEMA SINGH GULIANI: Yeah, I mean, you’ve seen this come up, not just in Sheryl Sandberg’s comments, but at the hearing yesterday. And this is this idea of data control. And I think that when you ask the average user or you ask the average member of Congress, the idea that the individual should control how their data is used, how it’s shared, and that’s something that should belong to them, not the company, is something that seems, you know, quite simple and quite logical. And the response from Facebook to these concerns is to say, “Well, you can do that, sort of.” But the reality is, is that, one, it’s not easy to figure out how to even use the controls that Facebook has provided to opt out of certain types of sharing, and, two, there are many areas where you still don’t control your data, certain things that the platform has deemed to be public.

And I think that, you know, looking at Facebook, looking at the issues that have been raised, not just in the last month, but, frankly, over the last several years, it really emphasizes this need to have some types of rules in place to make clear the types of consent people have to provide, because, in many cases, the types of information that are being collected by these platforms go far beyond the service they’re providing, go far beyond what people think are being collected, and go far beyond what I think is the day-to-day understanding of how this information is being treated.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the single most important regulation around privacy that should be put in place, Neema, if that’s a fair question, before we go?

NEEMA SINGH GULIANI: Sure. I mean, I think that regardless of what rules are in place, we have to think about enforcement. These can’t be things that are just words on a piece of paper. And so, as part of that, it’s really important that individuals have a private right of action, that if they feel that a company has violated their rights, that they have a way to go into court and raise those challenges, and also that there are government agencies that have the powers and the authorities to take action.

You know, a question we should all be asking is—you know, these have been massive privacy incidents that have come out over the last month: Why was no one aware? You know, why were government agencies at the federal and the state level only now opening investigations into practices that had existed for years? And so we need to make sure that agencies like the FTC and others are really equipped both from an authority standpoint and a resource standpoint to monitor companies and make sure that they are in compliance with whatever privacy regulations are adopted in the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Neema Singh Guliani, I want to thank you for being with us, legislative counsel for surveillance and privacy at the American Civil Liberties Union. When we come back, we’re going to talk specifically about Facebook and kids. Stay with us.

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